Friday, March 31, 2023


Issue 590: What Has Stuck with Me?


Stellarium:  Now that's a purty soft, paw-paw!
Which astronomy software has stuck with me, I mean, muchachos. Which is not what this one was supposed to be about. It was intended to concern my ongoing re-exploration of the Moon. Or maybe, if I got awful sanguine, getting my big 6-inch refractor and Losmandy GM811 out of mothballs. Alas, with the month running out, I found myself under typically gray and stormy spring Gulf Coast skies. So, what we’re going to talk about this morning is which astronomy software I’ve found enduringly useful over the years and which I haven’t.

Nota bene:  this time we are talking only about planetarium/planner software…some other time we can jaw about imaging and guiding programs and stuff like that.

What Has Stuck


I was awful skeptical about this astro-soft for the longest time. It was awful purty, sure. Very. And amazingly responsive on modest PCs despite that beautiful depiction of the sky. But it just didn’t seem to offer much beyond that. Hell, it wouldn’t control a goto scope, and its selection of deep sky objects was quite limited. It was an “armchair astronomer” kinda thing, I reckoned.

Not anymore. This freeware program has evolved into a powerful tool for doing many things in amateur astronomy. It has built-in telescope drivers, ASCOM compatibility, and a huge number of DSOs. Stellarium’s visualization of the sky is prettier than ever, and the performance hasn’t suffered.

Cartes du Ciel

Cartes du Ciel. As pretty as Stellarium? No, but very useful!
I shouldn’t have to tell you this is a perennial favorite of mine. It has been since my late friend and talented observer and writer Jeff Medkeff told me I should have a look at it many a long year ago. It works simply and well and offers all the features most working amateurs could want.

Howsomeever. Understand that comes in a pretty plain package. Oh, it has been frequently updated by author Patrick Chevalley, and doesn’t look like a refugee from the early 90s, but it doesn’t worry about an overly realistic depiction of the sky. Its display is plain but clear and it is legible, which is often a good thing out on a dark observing field.

Skytools 3

Author Greg Crinklaw has had Skytools 4 out for a number of years. But you know what? I never got friendly with it like I did with 3.  Maybe that’s because the version of ST4 I have is the imaging flavor and is far more powerful and complex than simpleminded moi needs. 

ST3 was the software that carried me through the Herschel Project, my quixotic quest (this is alliteration day) to observe all the thousands of deep sky objects discovered by Sir William Herschel. Skytools 3 gave me all the tools I needn't for that enormous observing project:  a versatile log, robust planning features, a highly detailed sky atlas, telescope control, etc., etc., etc. I think it is fair to say I could never have finished the huge Herschel list without Skytools 3.

Deep Sky Planner

“DSP,” by Phyllis Lang, now in version 8, is, like Skytools, a planning program/logger. I don't doubt I coulda used this program to do the Herschel Project if that was what I’d had on my hard drive at the time. What initially drew me to DSP (when I rediscovered it; it has been around for decades), however, was something simple: its large screen fonts. I found them easier to decipher with my old eyes. Once I started using Deep Sky Planner, though, I realized what a powerful and versatile package it is. One feature I particularly like is it allows me to use my favorite planetarium programs for charting and integrates very well with them. DSP is what I mostly use these days.

Virtual Moon Atlas. Still free and still the best.
Virtual Moon Atlas

As I have said many a time, for years I dreamed of lunar observing software as detailed as the big deep sky planetariums and planners. And once again Patrick Chevalley hit a homerun. Oh, there’ve been a few other attempts at a computerized lunar atlas, but none has come close to this freeware software.

What’s great about VMA? Well, the detail for one thing. It leaves print atlases like the venerable Rükl atlas in the fricking dust. It incorporates a lot of professional references and images like Lunar Orbiter data. Hell, it will even send your goto scope to lunar features (I have done that and it really works). I don’t have to dream about computer Moon atlases anymore. Virtual Moon Atlas gives me everything I need and want.

What Hasn’t Stuck


This is heresy, I know, since Software Bisque’s TheSky is such a long-running and, I’ll readily acknowledge, powerful tool. Straight skinny on it from Unk? I used TheSky 6 quite a bit years ago and dabbled with TheSky X, but the program was never quite silly old Unk’s cuppa tea. It just seemed counterintuitive to the way I work. And, if’n you axe me, overly complicated.

Another factor? I had transitioned to planners like SkyTools and DSP, and didn’t really need a humongous standalone planetarium program. Finally? TheSky is good software, but it ain’t cheap:  $400 for the top-of-the-line non-imaging version. That may be a very reasonable price for those who need its power, but for the relatively simple observing I do of late, I just don’t need to spend that kind of money. $400? That will pay off my bartab for quite a while.

Starry Night

I gave Starry Night (6) a good try some years ago thanks to a review copy that came my way. I was somewhat impressed. Its depiction of the sky was unarguably even more beautiful than that of Stellarium—its sky was stitched together with actual images by way of the old Desktop Universe software (that the Starry Night folks had bought out). It had some abilities I hadn’t seen in any astro-ware, too, like built in links to weather services—that came in right handy one time down Chiefland Astronomy Village way.  And yet…and yet…

Starry Night 6 seemed a little, I dunno, “clunky.” A little sluggish, for one thing. Also, even more than Stellarium, it didn’t seem as legible for my tired eyes at 2am as Cartes du Ciel, not by a long shot. Then came Starry Night 7, which I am told was pretty derned buggy. The current release is Starry Night 8, which I hear is quite good. What dissuades me from giving it a try? Mostly the $259 price tag. That, again, sounds like something that does more than I need. I’ll use the money I save for yet another evening at my favorite sports bar, Heroes USA.


I used this venerable planning program for many years. I believe it was the second planner on the market after Ms. Lang’s original Deep Sky Planner (unless you consider David Chandler’s Deep Space 3D the first planner, which maybe I do). It had some things other planners still don’t, like the log entries of talented amateur observers like the late Barbara Wilson. Unfortunately, it was never quite up there with Skytools and DSP, lacking such simple things as a way to rearrange column order. Author Steve Tuma gave up on it a few years back, but it is still available as a free download now…but…  It always had a few problems and I suspect as Windows has evolved it has even more today.

Finally, there’s that group of programs I might still use if they’d run on a modern PC. The above-mentioned Deep Space 3D comes to mind. It did pretty great charts; it was the first astronomy software to be able to produce maps comparable to those found in a print atlas.

Another is Skyglobe. Like DS3D it was a DOS program (a semi-working Windows version was released shortly before Skyglobe sank), and you’d have to know more about Winders than I do to get it to run there. But there has never been a better soft for quick “What’s up?” looks to see what your sky is like right now.

Finally, there’s Megastar. After the transition of its former seller, Willman-Bell, to the AAS, I believe this has been made into a free download by its author, but I’m not sure whether it would run on a modern machine. Be that as it may be, Emil Bonanno’s software was the most detailed computerized deep sky atlas ever seen when it came out in the early 1990s, and I shall remember it fondly.

To tell the truth, y’all, astronomy-computing is in transition here. I have switched to Macintosh for many of my computing tasks, including astronomy. I am currently using the Mac versions of Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium, but am thinking about ponying up for the Mac version of SkySafari. I love it on the iPhone, I do not hesitate to say. When/if I do, you shall here all about it.

What else? I swear, y’all, I will get out with a scope next month. I am about to go stir crazy here. Every night the same thing, TV with the cats accompanied by catnip for them and cold 807s for me. I need some photons!

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